Witnessing to Integrity in an Untruthful World

I have to admit, when I think of the traditional Quaker testimonies, Integrity rarely tops the list. It is certainly on my list, but it doesn’t seem to be a life-or-death matter the way the Peace Testimony can be. Nor does Integrity seem to be socially revolutionary, the way the Testimony on Equality has been (and continues to be) among Friends. Indeed, compared to other testimonies, Integrity seems pretty tame, almost like a kindergarten lesson on honesty.

Of course, Friends practice integrity. As much as we are able, Friends work very hard to always tell the truth. Most of us strive valiantly to match our actions with our words, and both our words and our actions with our beliefs. We may even ask ourselves queries to probe how well our daily practice of integrity is going.

But how often do we actually witness to integrity? I’m not thinking of the garden variety honesty most folks of goodwill already practice, but Integrity with a capital "I." How many of us have made a public witness to that? A testimony, in other words, that would clearly brand us as a Friend of Truth even to those who have no acquaintance with our Religious Society.

In that light, the Integrity Testimony doesn’t seem quite so tame. Indeed, for most of us, telling the truth seems relatively easy compared to witnessing to Truth. This may sound like a fine distinction, but for some reason, taking a public stand for Integrity is often a lot more complex and difficult than simply being honest in our personal lives.

At least that’s how I’ve experienced Integrity. Like most Friends, I tend to think of myself as an honest person, and most of the time I am. Recently, however, I discovered anew that Integrity is not quite that easy. I wasn’t expecting it, but suddenly there I was, face to face with an opportunity to not only be honest, but also to make a public witness to our testimony.

The whole thing started out quite innocently. I went to the local university, now one of the largest employers in the area, to apply for a job with their in-house temporary agency. The receptionist handed me a sheaf of papers, told me to fill them out, and that a recruiter would then speak with me. Nothing new there. I had expected as much from other interviews I had been through.

What I was not expecting was the form asking me to authorize the university to conduct a criminal background check, and another form asking me to do the same for a drug test. On the application form, they had already asked me if I had ever been charged or convicted of a long list of offenses. I hadn’t been. The application also asked me if I had ever used illegal drugs. I hadn’t done that, either, and told them so.

I needed the work, so I signed the forms, but for some reason I felt uneasy about it. Indeed, I felt a little like John Woolman reported feeling when he signed that now infamous bill of sale for a slave. At the time, I didn’t fully comprehend what it was about those forms that bothered me. All I knew was that adding my signature simply didn’t feel right.

It was only later that I realized the significance of what had happened. In asking me to sign those innocent-looking papers, the university was in reality requiring me to sign the functional equivalent of an oath. Though university officials never asked me to put my hand on a Bible and swear, they might as well have. Not trusting my word on the application, the university wanted verifiable proof that I was indeed "telling the truth and nothing but the truth." Just like the courts, the university wanted something more than my simple statements as assurances of my honesty. They didn’t call it an oath, but it had the same effect.

Traditionally, Friends have witnessed to Truth by refusing to take such oaths. George Fox, for instance, was very clear on the matter. When he was asked to verify the truth of his statements by taking an oath, he refused. Jesus, in Matthew 23:16-22, said not to swear, so Fox wouldn’t, either. Later Friends likewise refused. They said oaths implied a double standard of truth, freeing one to lie when not under oath. So early Friends didn’t swear, either. Period.

That is our tradition. But what about now? My yearly meeting advises Friends, when asked to take an oath, "to advance the cause of truth by simple affirmations, thus emphasizing that their statement is only a part of their usual integrity of speech" (Faith and Practice, New York Yearly Meeting, Advice 13). Other yearly meetings have similar advices.

Such sentiments are fine on paper, but how do they play out in day-to-day life? Curious, I began to ask other Friends about their own Integrity witness. What do they do when faced with oaths and oath-like situations? How do they respond?

Interestingly, George Fox and yearly meetings notwithstanding, most Friends I talked to admitted fudging a little when the chips are down. One Friend, when sworn in as part of a jury pool, simply didn’t raise his hand. Another didn’t stand. Some Friends have substituted the word "affirm" for "swear" when repeating after the judge. Others have figuratively held their noses and signed papers that were essentially oaths. Few of us, however, have chosen to make a public witness.

Why? What is behind this modern day reluctance? Is refusing to take oaths becoming dated, an historical artifact like plain dress and speech? Is it because we lack clarity and only know that we should avoid oaths but not why? Is it because the teachings of Jesus on oath taking have lost their force? Is it because we are afraid to make a scene or call attention to ourselves? Is it because we fear coming across as "holier than thou," or like religious fanatics who maintain they don’t ever lie?

All of those reasons are likely to bear to varying degrees with Friends, depending on who we are and the situation in which we find ourselves. I can especially understand concerns about how our witness will come across to others. Friends today are right to be reticent about witnessing to their own personal integrity. Most of us know we are not paragons of truth-telling and we rightly avoid words or behaviors that call attention to ourselves rather than our witness.

But I suspect that often our reluctance is more a matter of convenience than principle. Most times, I think, we fudge because we simply find it easier to go quietly along than to witness. Faced with social pressure, many of us choose the path of least resistance.

That’s what I did. That’s what the receptionist at the university seems to have done, too. She herself was sympathetic to my discomfort. She was not easy with the forms, either. Indeed, she even wistfully shared with me that when she was growing up, "A person’s word was their bond." But even so, like so many of us, she still handed me the forms and shrugged. "That’s just how the world is these days. You can’t trust anyone."

But as tempting as the path of least resistance might be, I am convinced that the world today still needs our witness. Think about all the spurious advertising claims that bombard us day after day. Think about all the politicians who will say almost anything to get elected, the CEOs who hide their own mismanagement, and the religious leaders who break trust with the very people they have promised to serve.

With so much untruth around, lying has become the norm. Today, stretching the truth, and in many cases actually breaking it, is now almost expected. It is assumed that everyone will lie unless they are threatened with some dire consequence for doing so. In fact, most of us have become so accustomed to untruth that anyone who tries to be scrupulously truthful today is likely to be suspected rather than trusted.

Fortunately, I don’t think that is the whole story. The news media might not report it, but I see a growing desire for truth telling. Today, in spite of a culture that is not only rife with lies but tolerates them, an increasing number of people are at the same time searching for Integrity. Everywhere you look, people are yearning for truth. They are looking and hoping for someone, anyone, who will tell them the truth.

The need is clear. Indeed, our world right now needs Friends to testify to Integrity every bit as much as it needs us to testify to Peace. We have an historic witness that can speak directly to this need. Not only that, we also have the witness of early Friends, who often spent time in jail rather than doing anything, including taking an oath, that would compromise their integrity.

If refusing to take oaths, a traditional form of the Integrity Testimony, has lost its power, how do we testify to Integrity now? What is our witness today, in this time and in this place? What can we say here in the 21st century to publicly witness to that more truthful world Friends have been seeking since the time of Fox?

Shelley E. Cochran

Shelley E. Cochran is a member of Rochester (N.Y.) Meeting. She has worked with several nonprofit and faith-based agencies and has a special interest in grant writing.